Two Weeks in the English Channel

 

So I’ve been in Plymouth two weeks now and I guess I’m beginning to settle into things. Its still a very strange feeling that I wont be heading back to St Helena in two months time, but I’m becoming more accepting of my new life back in the UK. How strange that living in the UK now feels like the strange, alien place and that I am starting my “new” life here. We had always wanted St Helena to change things for us, one way or another, be it financial, spiritual who knows, but something. We particularly didn’t want to move back to our old house, old jobs, old lives, as if nothing had ever changed. In reality our time on St Helena has changed everything.

We have been able to save money on St Helena, sufficient we hope to enable us to move out of the very cheap area of North Wales, and buy a new home here in the South West. I learnt to dive, and achieved my dive masters, which has enabled me to secure my post at the National Marine Aquarium, a place I have always wanted to work. I have developed my photography which has enabled me to build a portfolio which I hope will lead to wedding photography here I the UK. Bev has developed new skills, new experience in management which has boosted her CV and will hopefully enable her career to progress still further. Our boys have developed into real people, they have learnt about diversity, experienced new lives and have had to learn to do without, this will all be wonderful grounding for later life.

But my experience on St Helena has also brought, what may turn out to be some negative changes. I am a different person now, I am more sociable. But I have also developed greater expectations of how I and others should be toward one another, which, so far have left me somewhat disappointed. Within just two days of arriving in Plymouth, my car window was smashed and my wallet stolen. Having spent the past three years in one of the safest places where people leave keys in their cars and front doors open, this absolutely saddened me. I was quickly reassured that this is not common in Plymouth, and indeed some people whom I spoke to have never heard of it despite living here many decades. I have since found out that the suspect has been arrested and he has been targeting many vehicles in the area.

Of course I also arrived home to the news of 23 dead in a terrorist attack at a concert in Manchester, followed up not long after by the second attack in London. Life on St Helena is so far removed from this world I had returned to. A fleeting glance at world news is all that one does on St Helena. Its not important, and instead people bury themselves in the problems of the Island and local politics (which are fascinating). With Bev and the kids soon to be joining me, it all seemed a little bit daunting and unnerving.

Socially things have not quite met my expectations either. Promising first encounters with my flat mates have not led to any invites for a drink, and my work colleagues, whilst perfectly lovely ave also seemingly failed to pick up on my isolation and loneliness. Despite them knowing it was my first weekend in Plymouth, and that my family were far away, social invites have been obvious in their absence. How unexpected that I should feel more isolated back in the UK than I ever did in St Helena. I am not trying to be critical at all, of my work colleagues or anyone else. It is simply that I have come to expect something different. On St Helena it would be unheard of for someone new to the Island to spend their first weekend alone.

 

With that said, my saviour came on Friday night when I ventured to the Stoke Inn, another of the many many pubs that are on my doorstep. Two lovely locals took pity on me an invited me to join them for a beer. What a night that turned out to be, great company and great fun. One of the guys, Jezz, is a professional armourer, making swords, shields and other fighting tools for films and drama. Conversations of his work and several beers led to a quick exit by Jezz, shortly followed by his return with two swords. Much of the rest of the night was then spent sword fighting in the beer garden, a surreal and highly memorable evening.

On Saturday I spent my time walking off my hangover. Arriving at the Plymouth waterfront in an area known as the Hoe, I was hugely encouraged to see people fishing, diving, swimming and drinking in the sunshine. There was also a group of young lads, jumping in the sea from high walls, thoroughly enjoying themselves and providing a great image for the kind of life we can eventually establish here.

After a lot of heart ache and emotion, my second week in Plymouth has felt much more settled. I still struggle with my lonely evenings, but I have stopped dwelling on things and more involvement in work has helped. The general election has proved a wonderful distraction and evening shave been spent either following the election debates or reading up on aquarium water chemistry, the joys of pH and alkalinity, calcium and carbonates and their reactions with dissolved CO2 have certainly jogged my fishy brain back into action.  I also managed a two hour game of football, which, needless to say has left me aching and in considerable pain, but my groin is still intact! This new found settlement has also brought some negatives as I have found my self falling into old habits of angry driving, shouting and swearing to myself at others minor mistakes  such as not signalling to exit a roundabout. (which is very rude). But most of all my wife and kids are on their way home, boarding the RMS for their own final journey. The morning they left St Helena I felt strangely and significantly more content, an ease came over me. I’m now longer counting how many days we have been apart and I excitedly countdown the days left. Not long now.

In the long run things are sent to test us and what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, plus a number of other proverbs I could refer to. But I think the experience of leaving on my own, the distance between my children, Bev and I will turn out to be a hugely beneficial thing. We moved to St Helena with, in part, the intention of me getting closer to the boys. It turns out it was being absent from them which was needed to really make me appreciate them and fall in love with them all over again. I have been surprised, and hugely encouraged by how much I have missed Oliver and Charlie. As for Bev, well they say absence makes the heart grow fonder. If you had told me two months ago that when you are alone in Plymouth you will fall even more for your wonderful wife, Id of told you it was not possible, and yet here I sit, more in Love than I have ever been, and like a teenager I am bursting with excitement to be re-united with my sweet heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Home Alone

Arriving in the UK I touched down at 9.15am and, after a very quick transfer through immigration and customs I headed strait for Budget Car hire. I had just travelled for eight days, six on a ship followed by over 16 hours of flying, and now I had to drive to Bristol, to what would be an empty house. I just wanted this over with so I could sit down and relax. The car hire gave me a small glimpse of what was to come, the problem with living on St Helena for three years is that essentially, on UK computer systems you don’t exist! What is your house number Sir?” “ I don’t have one”!!! As has been the usual response Bev’s parents address, where our bank accounts are registered, provided something to put into the computer and after lots of fiddling eventually the computer said yes and I was on my way.

How strange, not long ago I was crossing the Atlantic, now I was driving up the M4 towards Reading. Reading was my first stop to get some food and catch up on some free WiFi. My first meal back in the UK, a Greg’s Sausage Roll, you cant beat them! It was very odd sitting in the services, the sun was shinning it was a lovely day, but as I sat on my own I realised that not one of the hundreds of people passing by knew, or cared who I was, they didn’t know the journey I had been on and just how significant my Greg’s Sausage roll was, or the story I had to tell.

That night I spent at Bev’s parents house, who were away on holiday. A week ago I was quite pleased the house would be empty but as I opened the front door and no one was there to greet me it just felt a bit sad. Bev’s sister later arrived and it was wonderful to see a smiling face, with a cuddle for me. A Chinese take away that night filled me up and my best intentions of watching the Europa League final were ruined when I fell asleep at 8.30 in front of the TV and promptly took myself to bed an hour later!

The next day was more driving up to North Wales to see my parents. This was a hugely welcome break and despite more driving I was ever so glad I fitted in an all too short trip. Dinner cooked for me, a familiar bed and the love of my parents was just what I needed to settle my nerves and bury some of the woes and sadness that has followed me since I left St Helena.

Two days on and I’m once again on the motorway, this time taking 8 1/2 hours to get to Plymouth. Bank holiday traffic ensured that it took me longer to travel 205 miles to the South Coast, than it did to fly over 3000km from Istanbul to London.  Packing the car was weird, 17 years ago I was packing a car with a couple of suitcases to go to University, now, coming full circle I was doing it again. This time however it felt very wrong, I’m married, a Dad, and I was packing to go and move to a new flat on my own. My drive was fairly traumatic, not just because of the horrendous traffic, but because of the sadness that filled me. I had no excitement, just sadness as I drove to my new home, on my own. If nothing else this whole thing has taught me just how much Bev and the kids mean to me, turns out they are my world and without them I feel lost and empty.

Arriving late I met my new landlord and lady, a lovely couple Chris and Deborah, and after signing a contract and going through the particulars I bided them good bye and moved into my flat. Nothing could cheer me that night, not even the Pork Pie and Wild boar Sausage roll that I bought from the new farm shop at Gloucester services, amazing by the way. Even Britain’s Got Talent failed to raise a smile from me.

The next morning I realised that my first shop for myself, done the day before, was something of a failure as I had remembered beer but forgotten Cereal. I had cheese but nothing to wash with! So, with my first full day in Plymouth I set about finding local shops, stocking up my cupboards and getting my barrings. After arriving in the UK I have ticked off Greg’s Sausage Roll, McDonald’s, Chinese take away and bacon butties, I thought therefore that I should probably attempt to shop healthy or Bev may not want me back once she does arrive. My fridge is therefore filled with healthy choice of ready meals, salad………and beer. The day was fine, the evening lonely, something I will have to get used to. The next priority was finding my local Richer Sounds to order my new home cinema system, of vital importance of course, and next, my local pub. The Waterloo Inn is descent enough and only 1 minute away, so a winner for me.

Returning to the UK has certainly come as a bit of a shock for me. Not long ago every minute was surrounded by people. On St Helena no one is alone, no one arrives alone, the community, particularly fellow ex-pats gather to ensure new arrivals are welcome and at home with dinner invites, barbecues and bring and share parties.

Wandering into the Waterloo Inn was the first time Id walked into a pub and didn’t know anyone for nearly three years and as I sit writing my blog tonight the evening is long and the flat is deathly quiet. Leaving St Helena was always going to be hard, I hadn’t contemplated the extra loneliness that leaving my family behind would bring.

One Night in Cape Town

I’m sat in a very comfy seat, my complimentary home made lemonade tastes lovely and a nice man in a white hat has just taken my dinner and breakfast orders I’ve not long had a nice hot shower after enjoying my free beer and soon Ill be sipping champagne and a nice single malt Scotch. I have 10 1/2 hours ahead of me but my seat recline fully flat and if I get board of watching films on my 12” Hi-definition screen, or listening to music through my Denon headphones I may have a nice comfortable sleep.

As you may of guessed by now I am travelling business class  aboard  Turkish Airlines flight TK045 to Istanbul. A special offer at the check in desk was enough to convince me to upgrade. I have never, in my adult life, had the opportunity to do so, and may not have the chance to do so again, why not enjoy a bit of indulgence I thought. If I have to return t the UK, lets do it in style.

As we taxi to the end of the runway I am once again filled with sadness, (although the forthcoming champagne may help). I wish Bev was here to share the experience of course, but the reality of another final goodbye sets in. The manner of this journey has meant that several “final goodbyes” have occurred, leaving the Island, leaving the RMS and now, leaving Cape Town.

Cape Town at NightIf you have followed this blog from the start you know how much I love Cape Town, a wonderful city full of life and vibrancy despite its obvious problems.My time in Cape Town this time has been short and not like any other. After picking up a bug and suffering with aches, pains and an upset stomach on my last few days aboard the RMS I was glad to arrive at my hotel. We had been held in Cape Bay due to heavy fog, which, although lifting from the bay it persisted in the harbour well into late morning. It had taken 4 1/2 hours from arriving in Cape Bay to arriving at my hotel.

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Cape Town and Table Mountain break out of the fog.

Travelling alone I had opted for a small boutique hotel in one of the oldest parts of the city, an area of colonial buildings, street side bars and coffee shops and a stones throw from the central business and shopping districts.

My first night was a write off. I spent an hour and a half trying to track down a pharmacy to get some drugs to calm my ailments, in a desperate rush to find something before the shops shut. One thing is for sure, it would be a very difficult flight the next morning if I didn’t find something to stop my numerous trips to the toilet!! Eventually said pharmacy was found and I retired to my hotel room with a take away dinner ( very nice one) and a film on TV. Now I know these are first world problems and retiring to my hotel room is no great hardship, but it is not how I wanted to spend my last night in Cape Town and was disappointing.

After a good night sleep and some medication I woke feeling much better and set about spending my last five hours in Cape Town taking in some history, an opportunity not afforded to me in the past, travelling as I have with the children. I take time to visit the Slavery Museum, housed in a old slave lodge where, in the 17th Century, slaves on which Cape Town was built were held in cramped, inhumane conditions. As I always do in Cape Town I wrestle with my conscience. South Africa was one of the last nations on Earth to grasp the equality of man, hanging on to racial segregation, discrimination and brutality as late as 1996 through the legalised Apartheid years.

But it is the present day that still concerns me. Huge numbers of beggars walk the streets of Cape Town, or sleep in parks. In the late 1600’s the Dutch East India company, having established Cape Town as a watering stop on route to the East, required food and soon set about cultivating in an area now known as the Company’s Gardens. Today one may roam these gardens , which are still cultivated, and be surrounded by the grandeur and opulence of the former Dutch Parliament buildings. Whilst the wealthy elite of the country, and tourists from around the world buy seeds or nuts to feed the pigeons or brazen and well fed squirrels, the homeless lie asleep on the well kept lawns.The contrast could not be starker.

The country has come a long way however, while young black women lie in the sun taking advantage of the late Autumn weather, a young white lady, well dressed, cleans a syringe with disinfectant, the inequality of life in South Africa is clearly not just down to race or colour. Just over 21 years ago the black, middle class which enjoys feeding squirrels and sunbathing in the gardens,  would not of even been allowed to walk here or indeed many parts of the urban centre unless holding a work pass.

Despite the obvious progress there is a long way to go, even in the relatively enlightened Cape Town. As generations of black South Africans were denied an education there is a huge skills gap and it is the black majority who are inevitably working in restaurant serving food to the white business men and women of the city.  A short drive out of the city centre towards the airport presents a stark image of mile upon mile of slums where the poor black majority eke out an existence, travelling into Cape Town to beg or find what ever work they can.

As I sit in my business class seat, sipping champagne as we cruise over Namibia the inequality of my own riches is not lost on me.

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England’s Green and pleasant land.

 

Moving On the RMS St Helena

Moving On

I have, on day four, started to re-appreciate the many charms of the Royal Mail Ship St Helena. Last night I took part in a “Fancy Hat” competition. Not normally one to take part in such events the prospect of a £5 reward simply for wrapping some paper around my head was too great a reward to pass up.

Saints have a remarkable capacity for sitting, just sitting, during the five night voyage, and many continue to confine themselves to their cabins for almost the entire duration. Despite this, a fancy hat competition it seems draws them out and the main lounge was packed out with onlookers. A parade of hats, and the declaring of “Everyone’s a winner” was followed by silly party games,  I retire with my dignity only partly intact after one or two beers too many!

Of course last night saw the start of the RMS quiz, during which only a badly timed, point doubling joker prevented team Bernie and Rob (so called after the two members who defected) from taking the first round.

Cricket this morning saw “The Saints” some what demolish “The Rest of the World” team. I have the bruises to show for it as I fearlessly and selflessly threw myself in front of well hit balls of twine. Despite the best efforts of our team motivator Bernie, we lost 135 runs to 91.

Despite all this, and the genuine improvement in my mood I have begun to contemplate and reflect on the leaving of St Helena in a new way. Up until three days ago I lived on one of the most remote, inhabited Islands on earth. A place that takes a five day sea voyage to reach. I lived on an Island that many have not even heard of , with a unique story of history and discovery, where animals and plants found no-where else on earth can be found. Until three days ago I swam with Whale Sharks or dived with Devil rays before dinner. Until three days ago I was unique and special. But as we pass the the two thirds (67%) mark of my journey I am no longer unique. I return to society, to the norm. When I pass people in the street they will not wave or say hello. When I tell people where I live they will simply believe me, instead of looking at me in disbelief, my home address will have a house number and street name, when I say where I live it will be of no consequence at all.

And as for St Helena she will carry on without me, her people will wave and smile at others. New people will come in and make their own temporary mark as my own impact will fade. Despite words of kindness of the difference I have made and the impression I have left I will soon disappear from peoples conciousness initially fading to memory before being dropped completely.

In my isolation however, whilst I may no longer be a part of St Helena, she will always be a part of me. Her beauty and isolation, her rugged cliffs and green peaks, and her people most of all will forever be in my heart and soul.

The Royal Mail Ship St Helena.

Its my last day aboard the RMS, tomorrow at 8am we will arrive in Cape Town and shortly afterwards I will step ashore and leave the life I have known for nearly three years behind.

This has been a tricky voyage for me, for many reasons, some of which I care not to mention. The combination of marking my final goodbye and not having my family by my side to share it with has led to a journey full of sadness for me.

But as the days have gone by the ship has inevitably sucked me in. Today, St Helena day, marks the 515 anniversary of the Islands discovery and special celebrations on deck have included a crazy morning of “sports”. Most events were either humiliating, wet and messy or both. It was well attended and I was pleased to take part and have a bit of a laugh. My quiz team, Bernie and Rob has been renamed Barney and Bob thanks to the consistent mispronunciation of Bernie and Rob name’s. We enter the final round tonight, lagging behind, Im not holding out for much although we are still with an outside chance.

Of course the RMS should of been of of service and decommissioned some 12 months ago and my final departure should of been on a plane. Despite my troubles I am, in the end, glad that it wasn’t, and had had the opportunity to have one last voyage aboard this unique vessel. The RMS is special and has a hold over most people who sail on her.

The RMS is a through back in time, Cricket on the deck, traditional furnishings and fine dining. Time is spent in a leisurely way, sunbathing on the deck, reading, or enjoying a glass of wine or cold beer with good company. The RMS does not claim to be the hight of luxury, or at the cutting edge of modern transport, she is leisurely, making her way steadily across the Atlantic time and again. Everyone aboard the RMS has a story to tell, everyone has a reason for being there, not just that they are on holiday, but an adventure, or starting or finishing a way of life, or perhaps a medical evacuation or return for treatment the people aboard, make the journey.

The staff are second to none, nothing is too much trouble and each and every one of them makes you feel like you are part of their family. Travel once and they will remember your name._MG_8878

Travelling on the ship also gives a sense of its importance to the Island. It is the heartbeat of St Helena, the passage of time is marker by her arrival and departure. Everyone and everything on the Island has been aboard. In the days following her arrival shops of full of new stock, slowly dwindling down as time passes and her next arrival is eagerly awaited. When the RMS is in port, shops and bars often open longer, or just open where they don’t normally, she is a powerful kick start to the Island each time she arrives. I wonder how this pulsating way of life, dictated by the Rhythm of the RMS will change once she is finally replaced by a weekly flight. People will arrive every week, good every 6 weeks on another ship. As someone who travelled to the Island to start a new life, the RMS is a wonderful introduction to the pace of life, the people and of course to those whom would become good friends. Arriving on a plane will not give time for ex-pat workers to integrate and make friends with Saints before they arrive, how will this affect the mixing and community spirit of the Island, will the divide between Saint and Ex-pats become wider? Only time will tell.

Tomorrow I will awake early to watch Cape Town come into view. The RMS is an extension of the Island  and it is not until I step onto land that I will of truly left behind St Helena’s special charm. Some 100,000 words after I wrote my first ever blog post I am writing the last words on “St Helena”. I will continue my blog for some time to come, to record the emotions and adjustments to be made coming back to the real world. But for now I wish to say thank you. Thank you Saint Helena, to the many people who have touched my life and crossed my path. To those I have photographed, bought food from, laughed and drank with, to those I have dived with and worked with. Thank you to you all.

It is time for me to move on now. I shall return one day, no doubt by plane. I will see changes I’m sure, but fundamentally St Helena will be the same, its people will ensure it. Until such time as I touch down on runway 20 HLE airport I bid you goodbye and I take with me memories that will last a lifetime.

Goodbye

St Helena disappeared from view a few hours ago and with it goes my Atlantic Adventure, those words in themselves are very difficult to write. I flit from holding it together when in company to tears of sadness when alone, a strange emptiness fills me that is hard to describe. I hope that writing will, as it has done before, prove therapeutic, but at present it is hard.


For several weeks I’ve thought about travelling on the RMS without the boys, sad to be leaving but looking forward to the freedom. But as I sit here now I just wish I didn’t have time to write because Charlie is bored, or Oliver wants to show me a passing tropic bird.
It feels so very wrong and incomplete to be leaving without my boys and of course Bev. We have lived, loved, cried and shared every second of this journey and leaving them behind is the hardest thing I have ever had to do

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My last Panorama of St Helena

The day started in usual RMS fashion, a wake of departing at the coffee shop, only this time the wake was in my honour. So many times before I have hugged and kissed goodbye to people from those wooden benches, now, it was my turn.
So many friends turned out and I forgot to take any photos of people. As we reached 8.50 I couldn’t take any more and I had to leave, I couldn’t sit chatting any longer. Running round saying goodbyes to a host of people it was so difficult but I kept my composure to the last.
Ian Johnson and Lisa Rhodes tested me. Two very good friends who’m I have shared so many laughs and memories with. Susie Nixon then broke me. Susie, a kiwi, was with us on day one of our journey, booked into the Commodore hotel in Cape Town a life time ago. Saying goodbye was hard, very hard.
As I turned to say goodbye to Paul and Jenna Bridgewater I couldn’t speak. I had nothing I could say that would do justice to how I felt saying goodbye to them. Paul and Jen and at the time baby Myles, were also with us from the start, sat on our dinning table on the RMS as we set sail for St Helena and a new life nearly three years ago. I will never forget how nervous and insecure they appeared as they started a journey into the unknown, and how incredibly brave I thought they were to be doing it with a young toddler, just finding his feet.
As we sat for dinner that first night Jenna asked “so do you believe in the Loch Ness monster?” and with that wonderful opening line began a lifelong friendship.
I’m sure, as my last journey across the Atlantic progresses I will come to reflect and take positive stock, looking forward to the next adventure. But as I sit here now, just woken from my mid afternoon sleep (my RMS tradition) I’m heartbroken and empty. I genuinely cant believe that I’m writing the last pages of my blog. I had always continued to write well past our departure but as I hear the familiar dinner time jangle of the RMS I wonder whether to continue writing will just be too difficult.

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Soon we are far enough away that the whole Island fits into a single frame shot

Day 2

Day two on the RMS has felt long. Although I’ve always though Id enjoy a journey without the boys, it turns out that without them the ship feels empty and quiet. The passage feels long and I don’t want to be here.
In reality the ship is very quiet. Two friends are with me and a handful if familiar faces, but the majority are strangers to me, and I have no wish nor need to change that. My usual need to make new friends, or pass on knowledge or advice to tourists has gone. I am heading away from St Helena, not to it, tourists don’t need my travel tips and the rest I will never see again.
My previous journeys have felt homely and comforting, this is neither. I don’t need nor want time to think and contemplate. I need to be in Plymouth starting work, to distract me and take me from my dark mood. Far from comforting the RMS feels like a slow prolonged wake, five days to say goodbye, I dearly wish that airport had opened.

PACKING IT ALL IN!

Before I continue from where I left off, I want to present a snippet of why I love this Island. Driving the children to school this morning, the sun is shining, but Charlie has just annoyed me to the point of shouting. As I drive I’m fuming, we sit silently in the car, the boys afraid to make noise for fear of re-awakening my wrath! We pass an elderly gentleman and with a piece of paper he flags me down. “Are you going to town” he asks, “yes, do you need a lift?” was my reply I have given more lifts to strangers in the past three years than the rest of my life put together. “No” he says, “but could you please deliver this letter to Sure (the Island’s telecom providers), it’s very important”. “Of course I can, no problem sir”, and with that a complete stranger trusts me with an important letter, and instantly lifts my moods and brightens my day.

I appologised to the boys for losing my temper, whilst re-iterating that they can’t leave their shoes in the rain all night, we cuddle, I tell them I love them and they walk into school happy, all friends again. Magic.

So back to the main story, after my last blog, things went from unusual (for St Helena) to damn right weird. An adventure cruise ship, fresh from taking bird watchers to the Antarctic is passing St Helena and agrees to call in to take approximately ten stranded, and urgent passengers to Ascension Island and beyond to Cape Verde, where they can then catch a flight to the UK. Crazy I know, but if you need to get off the Island, at this point in time, it’s your only option.

For me this was not a strait forward option, it gave me two days’ notice and may of cost a lot of money. After checking with my new boss, I decide to wait in hope the RMS is fixed, and I can travel on the 17th May, arriving just two weeks late for work. For friends of ours however this was not an option, with their passports expiring they were not able to travel through South Africa, and Ascension was their only option. But as I explained, Ascension Island runway is now also closed, so the MV Plancius, leaving in two days became their only option to get off the Island. With the ship boarding at 11am, Frankie and Dean Gonsalves were still rushing round town, trying to speak to one government official after another to get emergency documents sorted to allow them to travel. With the children in tow and the sun reaching its mid-day peak I offered my hand and took their children for toasties and slushes in the park, a welcome relief to the stressed parents.

Eventually the documents come through and, after a third goodbye I saw off some of my best friends on the Island, not sure when I would see them again. They travelled for two days before arriving on Ascension Island, and with a few hours stop over, headed to English Bay, a stunning white sand beach with clear blue waters. Now at this stage some of you probably know what’s coming next, yes that’s right, my friends were attacked by a shark. Are you f**king kidding me, you can’t make this up. As Bev and I are enjoying a wonderful wedding on the Island news comes through that our friend Frankie has been attacked by a shark, and although is alive and safe, will face months of surgery and rehabilitation as her Achilles tendon and other parts of her ankle have been torn to pieces. By all accounts Dean was something of a hero, punching said shark in the face repeatedly to get it to leave his wife alone, before fending it off from himself. Two other people worthy of a mention are Paul and Craig Scipio who selflessly ran to their aid pulling the couple from the water and administering essential initial first aid.

The children, thankfully not in the water, witnessed the whole thing and were understandably in pieces. The news left us all on the Island shocked and worried. With Frankie stable and in good care, she awaited an emergency flight to the UK (one way to get home quicker) whilst Dean and the children were dumped back on the Plancius to spend another ten nights at sea away from their injured wife and Mum.

Happily I can report that Frankie is doing well, operations have gone well and I’m sure she will be back with us before long, already able to laugh and joke about the events. The children and Dean remarkably got back in the sea at Cape Verde, something I think is pretty incredible. For us it was difficult, not only the trauma of getting trickles of information about friends in a very serious situation, but, having spent most of our lives as Marine Biologist peddling stories of how sharks are not dangerous and the oceans are safe and sharks should be protected, one of our closest friend’s bloody well gets attacked by one. It’s important to present some background though. For some time now Galapagos sharks have been encroaching on the island, encouraged by the discard’s of fishermen thrown freely into the shallow waters. These sharks have not only begun to relinquish their fear of man, but are actively seeking out shallow waters with people around, associating the situation with food. The Ascension Island government must make some changes. Although not a tourist destination, the two swimmable beaches on the Island are very very popular with the locals on the Island and those passing through, who now would risk swimming in their clear blue waters.

Back on St Helena the fall out for me was somewhat intense as the worlds media did their best to find out what is going on. A quick search on Frankie’s Facebook page reveals a photo of her swimming with a whale shark, taken of course by yours truly. This led to five national UK papers phoning me directly trying to get more information. Sticking to the facts as I knew them and correcting some inaccuracies it was a delicate situation. My friends still separated as Dean and the family travelled by sea, the extent of Frankie’s injuries not clearly known, and not wishing to upset anyone I told them as little as I could get away with and bided them a polite goodbye.

The photo itself though did appear in several national newspapers. One would never ever wish for anyone they care for to be injured in this way, but it’s a pretty cool photo and seeing it in the national press I must admit is exciting!Telegraph

Now, at two pages long already I should probably stop writing before boring you all to death, but if you’re with me so far I shall continue. Set as I was to leave on the 27th of April, our personal belongings were boxed and packed into shipping containers the week prior, on the 20th April ready for their long journey back to the UK on the MV Helena (the replacement cargo vessel commissioned to ensure supplies to the Island) . Now with over a month left on the Island, Bev and the boys even longer, we had no option but to move into someone else’s house. What we needed was a family, who were on leave and would be off the Island, whom perhaps had young children with toys for the boys. Whom could that be, yep, that’s right, Frankie and Deans house! And so it was that we left our lovely home in Alarm Forest and crossed the Island to Cleughs plain with just a suitcase each to last the next three months! The local news outlets were keeping us informed about how passengers, now stranded in Cape Town might get home and how in turn, those here might be able to leave. A plane, no plane, the Queen Elizabeth cruise ship, no Queen Elizabeth Cruise ship, RMS on schedule, RMS needs more work, the stories and rumours went back and forth like a yo yo. Eventually confirmed, news from SHG that a plane had been commissioned to fly people now stuck in Cape Town for, in some cases 6 weeks, home to St Helena. So finally I had a confirmed route back to the UK that would get me to work on time.

I e-mailed the given address and was assured my name was on the list and more information would be provided when available. Waiting and waiting it was 2.30pm, the day before the flight before I phoned up Solomon’s Shipping office who were dealing with bookings. “Hi there, its Paul Tyson here, I think I’m on the flight, but Ive not heard anything more can you provide some information. What time will we depart, what time do we arrive, do I have a ticket, where do I get my ticket from, hat is the baggage allowance?” My questions went on and the response was a rather despondent “I’m sorry Sir, I don’t have any information to provide you, we haven’t been told anything yet”. I asked if I was still booked onto the 17th May RMS voyage, and had it confirmed I was. With that I asked them to call me as soon as any information is forthcoming. As I sit here now, the plane has been and gone and I still haven’t received that phone call. But never mind, my passage on the RMS is booked, the ship is repaired, has reached St Helena and is currently steaming towards Ascension Island.

I will arrive in the UK on the 24th May, ready to start work on the 29th. My sixth and final voyage on the RMS, a small piece of history of my own. In the meantime St Helena made its own history once more as, only 12 months late, the first commercial passenger plane landed and departed on St Helena. The boys and I went to watch this historic event. For most parts of the world, a plane with 60 passengers landing is not big news, but for the Island this is massive. The airport heaved with people, family and friends and curious onlookers like myself. The airport, baggage handling and oversubscribed restaurant all ran perfectly, and for the first time the airport operated as it was intended. The excitement was palpable, and I am thrilled for all the staff and people involved in the project. We are still some months away from the airport operating properly, but at least we now know it can. Will we ever get to the bottom on who cocked up along the way, I doubt it, and does it matter? Well yes it does, but we can move on and the successful landing of RJ85 Avro flight takes everyone a step closer.

Crowds gather waiting for the plane to arrive.

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The airport seen from Millenium Forest
_MG_8715-Pano_MG_8697-Pano_MG_8705The airport was heaving with excited friends and family.

Anyone wishing to read more about the airport and this historic day should take a look at Darrin and Sharon Henry’s terrific blog, What the Saints Did Next. Fantastic photography and writing.

So what’s with the title, “Packing it in”, obviously I have eluded to our personal belongings being packed away, but, set as I was to leave on the 27th April, the past three weeks have truly allowed me to pack it in, and my weeks have been nonstop fun. People are now asking me, “how many leaving do’s have you had? Six!!” The undoubted highlight of which was an awesome party with our neighbours who put on a mini festival involving a swimming pool and bouncy castle, barbecue and cooking on a fire pit, lots of beer, a live band and a stunning sunset to boot. Oh what a night. A huge thanks to Hayley and Jamie Bridgewater for a memory lasting night.

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Aside from hangovers I have also managed to start, at long last, playing golf. My game is not good, but improving, and with that I played my first (and last) Texas Scramble tournament, a doubles game where the use of whichever ball is hit best, allows for my way wood shots to be discounted! Alas my teammate Tina Johnson and I came last, or joint third as I prefer to call it, but it was a great day and was followed up with another barbecue and more drinking. There is a solid theme of the past few weeks and beer has been central to that theme, I shall have to re-asses my habits wen I’m back in the UK, but for now I’m on holiday and shall enjoy it!18275118_10156089632834829_1014096313409788607_n.jpg

I have also fitted in three post box walks. Post box walks are  list of 21 walks, of varying difficulty across the Island that, at the end of the walk, have a post, containing a stamp for you to mark ones guide book at the completion of each walk.

The first was a walk to Great Stone top, with friend Gordon Brodie. Gordon has not yet featured in my blog, which is strange as he has been something of an ever present. Cards, Golf, Snooker, drinking and barbecues all, inevitably are shared with my unique and characterful friend. Some (well he) would call him powerful, his friends affectionately tend to call him Gordie Bollocks. I could tell you a hundred stories from our time here together, most of which involved beer and often the breaking of something or someone, or other inappropriate behaviours. But for now I’ll leave the stories to his company as a walking companion for the week!

Leaving the Bell Stone (an ancient phonolithic volcanic rock that rings like a bell when struck) we started out through forests of pine before the path opens out with spectacular views across Prosperous Bay and the airport. With another drinking engagement in the afternoon we soon made the decision to forego the full walk to Great Stone top and instead settled for its little brother, Little Stone Top! A pleasant walk with enough out of breath moments to make one feel as though they have done some work, but short enough to get back in time for a party . We all enjoyed the views, the climbing and the company.

Gordon and his son William also joined us a few days later as we tackled Sharks Valley. A longer walk through a steep sided Gorge that falls deep into a ravine and opens out onto the rugged rocky coastline of the Atlantic Ocean. This was something more of a challenge as much of the walk traverses along very narrow loose paths across the steep sided rock face of the gorge, with a precipitous drop below. Oliver in particular struggles with this, the combination of exposure and loose grit below his feet, understandably unnerving him. We edged along, hand in hand, for what felt like an eternity as his nerves undoubtedly rubbed off on me. But we made it, down to the sea where we were faced with what I personally can only describe as a shocking scene. Here we are, 800 miles from the nearest other land, 1400 miles from the nearest continent, on a rocky beach simply covered in the world trash. Rubbish, carried on the current for hundreds or thousands of miles and washed up on our isolated Island. You would struggle to find somewhere more remote than this beach, and yet Mans’ mark has been left. Humanities collective contempt for our planet never ceases to amaze me, and here it was laid out before me in the form of bottles, sandals, ropes, nets and trash.

Next up was a tour with a difference as Arran Legg, of Arran 4×4 tours met us in the morning for an off road drive through the Islands off beaten tracks. We spent six enjoyable hours in the company of the very knowledgeable, and thankfully skilled Arran as we wound through hill and dale, across lush pasture land to dry deserts. The highlight of which for me was a lengthy, often unnerving, drive through Fishers Valley and to our picnic sight overlooking the airport.

This spot and track (if you can call it that) are only used by Arran himself, and the National Trust when monitoring the Islands endemic Wirebird population. It was as remote as it was stunningly beautiful. The recent rains have brought colour to this arid landscape. The feeling of isolation and privilege was wonderful. My mind wandered as I contemplated the huge amount of change this apparently static landscape has seen. Once the location of a huge woodland of endemic Gumwood trees (large Daisies that grow as trees!!) the landscape has been eaten bare by centuries of wild goats, brought to the Island by successive Portuguese ships as a food source for their long journey on the Indian trade routes. More recently of course, a valley has been filled in, and an airport has been built. The site of which will soon become normal, but at this stage still presents a somewhat surprising image of this concrete strip perched perilously on a bizarre, remote rock plateau miles from any other human habitation!

One of the most challenging Post Box walks”. “Walking on St Helena is different and challenging…..confident and regular walkers from elsewhere in the world have found that they are not able to cope with the local terrain”. “For walks rated 5/10 and above it is important for walkers safety that they are accompanied by a knowledgeable guide”. Are the words I read once safely back in my car, AFTER, taking on the infamously named “The Barn”. I should of read that earlier!!

Perhaps the most notorious of walks on the Island with difficult path finding, vertiginous (I love that word, it means vertigo inducing) drops and exposure, shear cliffs and 300ft drops. No problem I thought, Ive spent many years scaling Peaks in Snowdonia, this will be fine, besides, Bev has done it before!!

As I crossed the first few fields and the sight of the Barn presented itself it crossed my mind that maybe, I shouldn’t of gone alone. But my ego, which has led me into many silly situations before, would not let me turn back and leave the Island having not “done the Barn”._MG_8751

It stood out ahead of me, a massive dark formation of hard rock, eroded on all sides as the softer landscape around it has dropped into the sea after millions of years of South Atlantic winds batter the cliffs. The guidebook suggests that paths may be difficult to follow following heavy rains, “we’ve had a lot of that” I thought. But the start of the path was easy to find and I followed into onto the first early challenges, traversing a grey mud cliff and gorge where the 6 inch wide path had been often filled in with an angle of mud, or obscured by sharp gorse bushes, all the while accompanied by what turned out to be an almost ever present feeling of impending doom.

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Looking back towards the crazy mud “path” that crossed the steep slope of mud!

One false step and you’re in serious trouble here mate. After crossing this first challenge the path reaches a wide broad ridge, welcome relief and impressive in its beauty, sharp edges eroded and crumbling in the wind with sands of orange, red and purple. The view stretched across Flagstaff Bay, looking towards Prosperous bay in all its glory.

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“Maybe that’s the difficult bit over with” I thought but before long the knife edge “Knotty Ridge” was before me and a challenging scramble down to meet it ensured. Now I felt like Oliver as I tiptoed steadily down the slope, aware of the looseness of volcanic ash and gravel below my feet.

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The guide book became a little unclear, do I follow the ridge, or traverse across its flank following the very obvious scar to the base of the Barn itself. “Follow the path Paul” were my reassuring words to myself. It wasn’t long before I thought I had made a mistake as in places the path was not a path, but a slope, upon which I gripped the mud above as I dug my toes in and edged across, foolishly looking between my legs to see the 300ft drop below me!! Others have done this walk with no problem, Bev included. Either I am not the mountain man I thought I was, or the paths have become seriously degraded and filled in as the regular rains have washed sand and mud down the slopes to smooth out contours.

After what felt like a very long time my drained and tense body found flatter ground on which to rest, take a sip of water and re-group. From a distance the next challenge looked to be the worst, but I now saw ahead of me some familiar territory. With renewed confidence I climbed upwards, with good hand holds and solid rock below my feet. I was now on the Barn itself and the loose gravel and sand that led me here has given way to solid volcanic rock, both secure and grippy. The narrow path, or complete absence of path no longer bothers me. This is proper climbing, this is my world.

As I topped out I expected to be nearing the top of the Barn and some flat ground, instead what greeted me took me aback. From a distance I have looked at the Barn and dismissed its scale, unaware of where the path goes and thinking much of the walk would be across its flat barren summit. What greeted me however was the enormous Eastern flank of the Barn and a small narrow path proceeding steadily and endlessly upwards. This was not a challenge of vertigo, or tip toeing, it was simply exhausting. After a leg draining time I reached the plateau of the Barn. Empty, beautiful, barren and yet full of life. Recent rains whilst eroding paths have enabled small plants such as the colourful Ice plant to thrive. Lichens and mosses, some of which are hundreds of years old cling to rocks and give away the secrets of some of the cleanest air in the World.

As I turn to the East, I am one of the first persons on the Island to witness the joyous return of the RMS St Helena, as she steamed past the airport. A poignant image of an old ship, the life line of the Island for some many years still pushing on (just) against the empty sad face of a false dawn. In a few days I shall be on the ship once more, I’m glad that I will leave the Island that way, its just somehow more fitting.

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_MG_8782After stamping my book, eating a sandwich and having a drink I turned to face my return journey, quickly arriving at my nemesis, the traverse. I decide that this time I simply don’t want to try that again and instead, I look upwards and decide a risky scramble to the ridge is a better option. Again I was soon doubting my judgement as I took one slip backwards for every two steps forward. But I reached the ridge and scrambled for what I hoped would be solid rock. To my dismay, the first part of this knife edge ridge was crumbling, and it wasn’t long before I was once again clinging and edging inelegantly along. A rock gave way beneath my foot as I scrapped my arm and grabbed a very well placed Wild Mango tree to arrest my fall.

After a short while the ridge widened slightly, and more importantly became solid, I could stand up on it, arms out and balance along its top. A friendly Fairy Tern came to look at this strange creature that looked as though he wanted to fly, but who’s feet were firmly planted on the ground.

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A scramble uphill, and an easier uphill traverse (uphill is always easier on dodgy ground) across those same muddy slopes led me back to my car, and to my relief I was able to sit down and read the pages I should of done earlier. “Walking on St Helena is dangerous and challenging…ignoring advice and attempting the more difficult walks (without a guide) is likely to result in unpleasant experiences and is dangerous” I should bloody say so!!!

Splendid Isolation?

The past two weeks I have started the process of coming to terms with my imminent (maybe) departure from this wonderful Island. Were we to stay longer we would be delaying the inevitable, many of our friends would of left, and both mine and Bevs work skills would be in decline, now is the right time to go, and Im at ease with it.

That’s not to say I wont miss the place nor that leaving wont be traumatic and upsetting. Last night we had dinner at a friends house, the Gonsavles’s, who, through a strange twist of events which I shall discuss later are leaving tomorrow, rather unexpectedly. This meant a great night of food and booze, ended by tears all round as we said good bye to two of our greatest friends, not just on St Helena but anywhere, they will be back, we will not.

The past two weeks have not been helped with a degree of uncertainty over the functioning of the RMS St Helena, our lifeline to the outside world, which had been in dry dock for two weeks with essential repairs to the starboard (I think) propeller. Following the cancellation of voyage 255 it was with some relief that I welcomed the news that the repairs had been successful and that the ship was on its way to Cape Town to collect passengers and cargo bound for St Helena, my 15th May start date at the National Marine Aquarium was looking good. Good that is until the ship promptly broke again with rumor of seals not sealed and an official announcement stating that one of the engines was stuck in full forward and had to be shut down.

The RMS is currently in Cape Town, whilst passengers shore side are hurriedly moved into hotels, unsure of how they will get to St Helena, and those of us Island side unsure of how we will get off. To make matters worse, Ascension Island government announced that the RAF runway was closed due to the unsafe condition of the Tarmac. As I speak there are around 800 people stranded on Ascension Island, 140 or so in Cape Town, a good number in the Falklands and of course those of us on St Helena who have no idea how or when we might be travelling.

So what’s the significance of Ascension. Well St Helena has an airport that could, in theory, be used by small planes to bridge the gap until the RMS is fixed. However, any plane travelling anywhere must be able to reach the nearest other available airport in case of emergency. Up until three days ago, for St Helena, this was Ascension, now its not, and the nearest functioning airport is somewhere on the West coast of Africa, 1800 miles away!

The significance for me is that I won’t make my 15th May start date, nor, when I do get to the UK will I have my planned time with family that I haven’t seen for almost a year, I will have to start work immediately. Things have been made worse by this all landing on the Easter Bank Holiday Weekend making it difficult, however we have been assured that Saint Helena Government and others are doing everything they can to assess the problems with the ship and asses other options for transporting people and goods on and off the Island, be in on small aircraft or by another vessel, somehow, I’m sure I will get home, and hopefully not too delayed.

It is the first time I have felt Isolated on St Helena. We are reminded all the time through tourism and social media, and when looking out of the window that we are indeed a very small dot in a very vast ocean, but it has never concerned me. The RMS turns up reliably and we have never had any concerns. Only now, as I ready myself to leave the Island, and find that maybe I cant does it hit home just how reliant we are on the one ageing Royal Mail ship and as I look out of my window the Atlantic Ocean ahead of me feels just that bit bigger.

In the mean time we make the most of our last few weeks on the Island. Having already had  my leaving jolly boys outing, my last (or not) card game, the Tyson’s “Bring and Bye” and goodbye dinner with the Bridgewater’s, I am racking up the leaving do’s and still have some planned. I have also missed a few weeks of diving but have managed to plan a few and on Saturday spent over an hour with the marvelous animal you can see below. Punctuate that with a stag do and my first game of golf on the Island and as per usual I have been pretty busy.

The highlight of our “lasts” has been our last walk to Lots Wife ponds, this time with a bunch of nobbers in tow. The scenery of Sandy Bay, trekking through the gates of chaos and along the coastline across narrow paths with shear drops is both staggeringly beautiful and a little nerve wracking. Like no where else on the Island you are immersed in Grand Canyon like orange escarpments, sharp ridges and deep, steep valleys. As the sun beats down heat waves rise from the ground, causing more than a little exhaustion for some of the group.

 

The reward at the end of the trek, once the vertical rope lined drop is navigated, are the ponds, beautiful turquoise crystal clear pools, cut off from the raging Atlantic beyond by a steep volcanic rock wall. The water in the pools is warm, and very salty and the experience feels very tropical as five finger fish dart around and bright red and yellow crabs cling to the rock walls of the ponds.

After a few hours, some swimming, photos, sandwiches and a beer the trek back beckoned and before I knew it my last walk to Lots Wife Ponds was done. Its hard to know what or how to feel right now. One moment I am all set for a 27th April departure, now I don’t know when Im going.

This morning my first port of call was the Solomon’s shipping office to see if when and how I can leave St Helena and make my way to the UK, I am provisionally booked on the 17th May voyage to Cape Town, but there is no news as to whether this voyage will go ahead, or if indeed an alternative will be found before then. Whilst this probably sounds like a criticism of the powers at be, it is not. It’s a right mess they have found themselves in, two broken airports and a crocked old ship, but I have no doubt that people have been working round the clock to find potential solutions over the bank holiday weekend, and I’ve been impressed, on this occasion, at the regularity of communication. Having spent several hours this morning wandering round town, in a useless daze waiting from bread to appear in the local store, the current rumor is that the Queen Elizabeth Cruise ship may be made available for passengers to get to St Helena and for some to leave. If I leave the Island on a luxury cruise ship I wont be at all disappointed, if on the other hand I leave on the wonderful RMS I will be equally happy. Right now I’m still here, and until the point comes that I get on board something and wave good bye I shall just have to continue to enjoy this land of splendid Isolation.

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My quote featured in the Times this week!

Friends

Im often faced with trying to put a finger on just why I love it on St Helena so much. Is it the weather in this sub-tropical climate? Or perhaps the stunning beauty of its diverse landscapes, is it diving, swimming with whale sharks or Devil Rays, or is it just the friendly approach of the locals who welcome me by name as I walk into our local shops? Or is it the unique combination of all of the above.

 After well over 100 dives on St Helena I finally had chance to spend some time with the amazing Mobula Rays (locally known as Devil Rays) and had my camera with me!

Certainly the weeks that have gone by have proven to be quite extraordinary in terms of diving and snorkeling as I have enjoyed rubbing noses with giants of the sea. In that time I have also passed my PADI Dive Master a huge achievement and one which has direct relevance and importance for the rest of my life.

These things of course add into a whole package, that makes St Helena, for me, just a wonderful place to be, but what has elevated it to be one of the best times in my life, right up there with my fabulous University years? It’s been a hard one to work out until a conversation in our Friday night watering hole, the Mule yard enlightened me, what makes St Helena amazing, friends, fun, funny, fantastic, fabulous friends. Everything we do, is done with friends.

 A walk to the shop see’s friends serving us our food. Patrick, the taxi driver who takes me to Thursday night cards, or snooker, is a friend. Johnny Hearne who operates the Enchanted Isle and take us to Lemon Valley, or snorkeling trips is a friend as is Anthony, who operates Sub-Tropic adventures and has tutored me from Open water to Dive master. The list goes on and it is totally unique that your days, times and experiences from swimming with whale sharks to buying bread is shared with friends.

Friend relationships on St Helena are complicated. Ex pats band together, as a natural shared experience/something in common thing, but also as a result of the transitional nature of contracted people on the Island. When we first arrived here a Saint expressed to me her feelings on ex-pats and their relationship with Saints. “I have no problem with people coming here”, she said, “I will be friendly and supportive and help where I can, but don’t expect us to be great friends, I have been hurt too many times when good friends leave the Island that I simply can’t make that emotional investment and commitment any more”. At the time I was slightly offended by this, but having now experienced the other side of this it becomes clear. Like a holiday romance, and in the absence of family, friendship bonds become very strong, they are re-enforced by sharing experiences and you become part of a family of people whom are relied upon for everything from childcare to barbecues, a shoulder to cry on and the greatest of laughs. And then, before you now it, they, or you, are gone. Friends are simultaneously the greatest and hardest thing about life on St Helena. I understand the Saint now, I understand that, when she has other friends and family, who will stay by her side throughout, she does not need, nor want to have friends leave so regularly.

Like those I made in University, the friendships I have made on St Helena will last forever, and we will no doubt see each other regularly, but back in the real world they won’t be by my side as I go shopping, there won’t be two parties every weekend to go to, and when I go for a drink on a Friday night I’ll be lucky to know five people, certainly not fifty.

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Its taken two years and eight months but we have finally seen some water falling from the heart shaped water fall. From drought and desperately low water levels it has not stopped raining for weeks now!

Today I waved goodbye to two close friends, Dave and Wendy Tinkler as they head back to the UK on leave. Of course I have witnessed good friends go many times before, but this one was hard. I couldn’t hang around the coffee shop to watch and wave, I had to say my goodbye’s and leave as quickly as I good for fear of not holding it together. Why the drama, they are returning in two months? But by that point I will be gone,, my daily thoughts are filled with sadness right now as I contemplate my imminent departure from this place I love. All good things must come to an end they say, and my time has nearly drawn to a close. I have secured a wonderful new job back in the UK, and on the 27th of April I will board the RMS for one last, and very final time. I will do so on my own leaving Bev and the kids here to follow me a month later.  I start work as Senior Biologist at the National Marine Aquarium in Plymouth on the 15th May.

Of course people will tell me that I should think about the future, that I have a wonderful job to look forward to and I have genuinely missed working in an aquarium. We are moving to a lovely part of the UK and as a family will have wonderful days and times. But those days won’t be shared with, all of the time, friends. I can’t bring with me my nobbers, the affectionate term we have coined for our little band of weird and wonderful friends.

16425875_369098053449510_8511501877451201894_n “Nobbers” Camping weekend at Blue Hill, I havent laughed so much in a long time.

Oliver too is worried about leaving St Helena, fearful of making new friends back in the UK and of leaving friends behind here. His behavior has been affected and he flies from tears to tantrums, in protest at this change over which he has no control or say. He was just five when we moved here and I think had little concept of the change he was about to undertake, moving home he is much more aware and much more worried about the enormity of the upheaval in his life. Charlie does not seem phased, but I think he has no concept of the changes ahead.  At five years old, St Helena is Charlie’s overriding memory, he first went to school here and within his short memory has known little else, I wonder how he will react the first day we take him to his new school.

I should be able to tell you that we can always come back, and of course we can, but the place and its people will be different. That is the fundamental of the Island, constant change. If we were to stay longer then our friends would leave us behind, so staying is not an answer, and longevity would only make it harder.

In July 2001 I was sat in my lounge, in 23 College Road, Bangor. I sat alone as the last day of University had arrived. My flat mates had left the building and I waited for Dad to come and pick me up and take me home from Bangor one last time. As I sat on my own then I sat with sadness and fear. I couldn’t contemplate a life without having my friends with me all the time, sharing experiences with them all day, every day from shopping to parties, from walking to days out, how they could not just be there. Leaving St Helena holds those same feelings, the same fears about how life will be in the next step.

Of course I have wonderful friends in the UK, and family who love us and miss us dearly, as we do them. We have lots to look forward to and much to be grateful for. I should be telling you how grateful I am for the experience and be mature and sensible about treasuring the memories and looking forward to the next adventure, and I’m sure with time I will see that just as I did when I left university.

When leaving the UK over two and a half years ago we contemplated what it would be like leaving our family and friends in the UK but we always knew we would be back, we knew if we were unhappy we could go home. We foolishly didn’t even consider the fact that we would set up a life here and that one day we would have to leave it behind for good. There is no coming back in twelve months if we don’t like it in the UK. When we will leave friends on St Helena we know full well that some, we may never see again.  With each passing day “my last” moments increase. My last trip to Lemon Valley, my last dive, my last walk, my last party and as I sit and picture myself on the RMS, looking back to the Island as she disappears out of view for the last time I simply want to cry.

    My last trip to Lemon Valley?

The Atlantic Ocean

The sea has always been special to me. I was brought up on the North Wales coast, in the town of Sunny Rhyl. The sound of sea gulls was always in the air and the beach was never far away. Despite its name Rhyl is not sunny, and yet walks and fun on the beach don’t require sunshine. The vast expanse of the Irish Sea, often grey and uninviting held huge wonder for me. Even when I was young I would start out at the sea wondering what lay beneath the waves, and where I might get to if I swam in a strait line on and on. My passion really grew one week when I was fourteen years old, and I had a work experience placement in my local Sealife centre. I was hooked and I have lived and worked around the sea and marine life for most of my life.

Moving to Saint Helena has been an even more wondrous experience. Living on an Island 10 miles wide, and situated as it is in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean the Sea pervades every part of life. You can see it from almost everywhere, smell it hear it. Everything on the Island has crossed the Atlantic to get here from food to furniture.

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Boat trips allow great opportunity to see and photograph the Island from a different perspective.

_mg_3426-pano-edit_mg_3398-panoRight from when we first arrived on the Island we have been intimately connected to it. Bev teaches Marine Biology, our leisure time is spent in it or on it, and now my work is to study it. Our boys learnt to swim in the sea, they have snorkeled ship wrecks and swam with whale sharks and had experiences that will last a lifetime.

Not long after arriving on St Helena Bev and I learnt to dive, passing our PADI open water qualification. This opened up a whole new world to me. I’ve wanted to dive all my life, but things have considered to prevent me from doing so until we arrived here. Now, I am a Dive Master having passed my open water, advanced, rescue diver and dive master qualifications over the past two years. Being in the water feels right, I feel at home there. I love the freedom of movement the sea provides, no longer confined to a 2D surface I can move up down and in all directions, its exhilarating, and when you add in the beauty and wonder of the thousands of animals that make St Helena their home its pretty special. Where else do you see wildlife in such abundance.

Not that you need to be able to dive to enjoy the amazing marine life here. One week I left my car at the garage to change the tyres. Instead of waiting at the coffee shop, or pub I went snorkeling off the Jamestown wharf, it was an amazing way to pass the time!

Not all the life that relies on the Ocean lives in it. St Helena has a wealth of bird life that nest on the cliffs and fly out to feeding grounds each day.

Some of our earliest experiences of the Marine Life here were the Humpback Whales that arrive here to calf in the Winter and Spring. These incredible animals can be seen mother and calf together in our waters. If you are lucky you’ll see them breaching as they hurtle their huge bodies out of the water and splash down again, seemingly just for the hell of it.

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One of my first Humpback images. A composite of a whale diving as its huge tail fin disappear below the waves.

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Breaching Humpback whale as we waiting on the RMS St Helena

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Of course where there are Whales there are Dolphins. St Helena is blessed with three species, Bottlenosed, Rough Toothed and the magical Pan Tropical. The Pan Tropical dolphin in particular is an acrobat, leaping out of the water in shear exhilaration as it twists and turns in the air. They are found in huge pods over 300 strong.

In recent weeks I have spent so much time at Sea as I have a new job assisting with various Marine Conservation Projects. I have traveled around the Island mapping fishing grounds, and we were lucky enough to be joined by a curious pod of dolphins. Their speed was incredible as they jumped and played on the wake of the boat even small Dolphin calves kept up with us without any bother at all..

For two and a half years I have been splashing, swimming diving and traveling on the seas of St Helena, but nothing could prepare me or beat the two weeks I have just had. Two of my best ever dives started with a night dive around James Bay was superb, and the first chance for me to test my strobes for my underwater camera. They worked a treat as I photographed Lobsters and Octopus, Stone fish and Eels.

This was followed on Saturday with a long awaited dive to Barn Ledge. A seamount that rises up from the sea floor to a height of around 12m. The dive circumnavigates the mount, dropping of the edge and down the huge underwater cliffs. I’ve never seen so many fish, parts of the dive require you to literally push through them as endemic Butterfly Fish and Bright Red Soldier fish shoal in their thousands.

But the diving was just the start, it is whale shark season again and they are here in big numbers. I have personally swam and photographed well over 50 sharks now as I have been lucky enough to become involved in a project to photograph these beautiful animals. The spots of a whale shark are like finger prints, unique to each and the work we are doing contribute to a world wide database of individual sharks to track where in the world they are spotted in an attempt to better understand their migration patterns. I am as in awe now as the first one I saw two years ago. The experience of swimming with these 10meter gentle giants will never ever leave me.

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Just when you think it cant get any better it does, and St Helena gave me one of the most magical experiences of my life. As I swam with one giant of the sea, a pod of friendly Rough Toothed Dolphins decided to join us. At first I just heard clicks and squeaks but as they came closer I realised what the noise was. In an instant I knew that this was once in a life time,stuff, in fact, for many this was never in a life time as I was plunged onto the set of a David Attenborough special. They were curious but timid, coming close and taking a look at me, but never venturing closer than 6 or 7ft. One was particularly curious and followed me, keeping its distance all the while, back to the boat. We had to move on to find more Whale Sharks, but to my huge surprise the Dolphins followed us and joined us on the swim with the next Whale Shark. I’m told this is incredibly rare, although seen by divers and snorkelers it is normally in passing as the dolphins quickly swim away, to have them swim to us, watch us and spend time with us was special, really special and a day that will live long in my memory. My incredible two weeks at Sea were topped off today as Bev, the Boys and friends joined me for a swim in the bay. As fish geeks Bev and I have wanted to see a sun fish (mola mola) for many years, and today we did. Another giant of the sea these weird looking fish can reach 2m in diameter, but cruise slowly through the sea. This one was not at all bothered by our presence, even allowing us to swim right up to it to stroke it, seemingly enjoying something of a back scratch. Sadly, with an attitude of not being able to top the experiences just gone I did not have my camera with me, but as I high-fived my wife in celebration I knew once again that nothing, perhaps ever, will top the week I have had, thank you St Helena and thank you Atlantic Ocean.

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Weddings, who’d of though it

We left the UK on a new adventure just over two years and four months ago. Although Bev had work and would be teaching (albeit in very different circumstance), I was stepping into the complete unknown, no job, no plan, no clue. I knew I would have some time on the Island, and I had always wanted to take up photography as a hobby, so, equipped with an amazon kindle book, and a £500 second hand canon with kit lens I started learning what all the buttons did.

Some of my earliest shots before I left the UK

I had no idea that it would take me anywhere. Shortly after we arrived on the Island I secured my first job with the tourism office, taking photos of the local restaurants and B&Bs etc. I had to get a work permit and register my business, Paul Tyson Photography (creative eh!?!) .

Photos of mixed standards of tourism establishments required creative thinking when it came to angles and lighting. Now I know why those glossy hotel brochures always look better than the real thing!

My landscape work was already quite well known and established by then, it seems I arrived at a  good time when excellent professional photographer Darrin Henry was busy travelling the world, and there were no other commercial photographers on the Island. Realising there was a gap in the market I promoted my new business, I remember Bev telling me, that “Any money I made from photography, I could spend on photography, but “(quite understandably) I wasn’t to spend any of the money she was earning!

Early St Helena Landscapes

Fair enough, but this provided me all the motivation I needed, the more money I make, the more toys I can buy. Inspired, and slightly jealous of friend David Higgins and his big lens for photographing St Helena’s wildlife, I bought a 120 – 300mm f2.8 Sigma lens. It was one of those ones that people look at and think “he must be making up for something” or simply, “what a tosser”!

My new f2.8 300mm lens allowed me to take these shots.

But I loved it and I could afford it, largely because of a new contract, and one I was most proud of, a commission from French Consul to St Helena to take exclusive photographs for a new guide book to Napoleonic sites on St Helena.

Photos and book cover from “On the Tracks of Napoleon” my first published images.

Next came night skies, we finally started to see the odd clear night sky and it was breathtaking, I simply had to get the gear to capture it on camera, another lens beckoned.

Some of my first Milky Way shots over our house in Half Tree Hollow.

In the mean time I was getting enquiries for studio type photo shoots, so thought I should pursue this and get some more gear. Backdrops, flash stands, wireless triggers and shoot through umbrellas followed. I think by now Bev may of been starting to regret telling me  I could spend anything I earnt on photography!!

The studio work didn’t automatically follow though, the requests continued, but, having set what I considered to be very reasonable prices given the outlay I had made, bookings did not come my way. My first studio shoot eventually came at the end of November 2015, it went well, very well, largely because of the gorgeous little girl I was photographing, and once the photos hit facebook the bookings came in.

My first studio shoot with the most gorgeous, smiling, happy young baby ever!

I soon began to realise that studio photo shoots, and portraits was a whole new ball game, not only did I have to know how to work a camera, and lighting, I had to know how to work a person! When amateurs come to you expecting to look like a super model you need to learn how to position and pose them, how to make them feel comfortable and relaxed with you, as a male photographer I think this is particularly challenging! Once again I took to you tube, and added to my 120GB of photography tutorials!

I started to feel the need to buy more gear. This time, it was a brand new camera, my first full frame, entry level professional camera. Wow what a difference, it allowed me to push the boundaries of what I could do, particularly in low light photography. Following on from basic studio work I was asked for more complex fashion type shoots, and my first real maternity shoot.

Some of my more accomplished studio work. Many were no where like this, over processed and overdone in many cases, but all part of the learning curve.

Again it was a new commission that helped pay for the new camera. I was commissioned to photograph all of the work that falls under St Helena Government’s Environment and Natural Resources directorate. This was a fantastic job, allowing me to see the workings of everything from the forestry team to the abattoir, from renewable energy to waste management. It was a mammoth job but again thoroughly enjoyable as I got to meet Saints from all walks of life.

From pigs in the butchery to people planting endemic seedlings, ENRD does it all.

In September 2015 the airport project started to hot up, as first flight after first flight landed in succession. First ever plane to land, first jet powered plane, first airliner. By now I had grown in confidence as a photographer and on the Island in general and I was pushy enough to speak to the important people and get myself runway access alongside the Islands media representatives. The results of this have been amazing, and my airport photographs can now been seen around the World as St Helena became the new hot tourism destination. My shots our the Islands wonderful landscapes started to appear in prestigious travel sites such as Conde Nast.  Of course we all know that the airport did not open, but in terms of World media, the wind sheer disaster was now an even bigger story and I had contacts from major newspapers and media outlets around the world. My photos of the airport and various planes landing can now been seen globally on sites ranging from the Times, the Independent and the BBC in the UK to USA today. Shots of the first commercial plane to land were quickly put on my facebook page and received over 100,000 views, astounding!

The first landing and first commercial jet liner to land on St Helena

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One of my images as it appeared in the Time Newspaper.

Not only were my photos appearing in media outlets, I was now to be featured in World famous London store Harrods, as I was commissioned to produce point of sale images for St Helena coffee!_mg_2620-edit

Fancy a coffee? I have to admit this is one of my favorite photos, taken on a log in my lounge! The steam isn’t even real!

Photo shoots became a mainstay but a new and interesting job came up with Enterprise St Helena to produce interpretation panels for tourist spots around the Island. This was a brilliant new challenge, combining photography with graphic design and writing, as well as proving a fascinating journey through St Helena historical archives and old photos. Learning more about the history of the Island and getting paid was great, but more importantly its wonderful to know that when I leave St Helena there will be something I produced, left behind for others to enjoy.

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One of 14 interpretation panels soon to be erected across St Helena.

As an aside I was also able to use my graphic skills when I was commissioned to produce the Governors official Christmas card. This was a test in itself, as the request was for a card featuring Lisa Phillips, her lovely black Labrador, dusty, and all twelve of Dusty’s new puppies!! Over 140 photos were taken to produce this card, mostly consisting of dogs bums and tails. But it was a huge pleasure, and the puppies were just lovely.

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Governor Lisa Phillips and her adorable Labrador pups. As a thank you for this job the boys were able to go and meet the puppies and spent over an hour cuddling and playing with them. They are fabulous.

Another “first” hit St Helena in October 2016 as an electrical storm shot lightening bolt after lightening bolt down upon us. thunder and lightening is a rare occurrence on St Helena, with some reports stating its over twenty years since the last one, making this storm the first ever to be photographed and shared around the World from St Helena.

These shots received over 20,000 views on facebook!

And so in December and January 2016/17 I find myself as a wedding photographer, with four bookings in as many weeks. Not my first I have done a few here and there, but as I have improved along with my gear these have been the first that I have charged sensibly for (relative to the amount of work) and that I feel accomplished in my work. I am enormously proud of the photos I have taken during wedding season. It is certainly a challenge, working fast, adjusting to rapidly changing light conditions, the photography is a challenge in itself, but its only now that I realise a wedding photographer is also the wedding director, and is looked upon to direct people from venue to venue, into groups, and to help ensure the day runs smoothly. It is daunting, hard work, but immensely rewarding.

If you’d of told me back in July 2014, as we packed our bags for the unknown that I would be a professional wedding photographer before I left St Helena Id of laughed at you, but as the New Year arrives and I look back on my time here I have come a long way. I am building both experience and a portfolio, and who knows where this may take me.

My readers can help me out here, have you recently got married in the UK, or been a close part of a wedding? How much did you pay the photographer, and please, how do my images compare to this. Id love to hear some open honest critique so I can better gauge exactly where I am.